A project in which a team led by a North East archaeologists played a key role in a breakthrough discovery into the origins of the Buddhist religion has been hailed as being of world significance.
The excavations in Nepal were guided by Professor Robin Coningham from Durham University and Kosh Prasad Acharya of the Pashupati Area Development Trust, and revealed a previously unknown Sixth Century BC timber structure under a series of brick temples.
Now the uncovering of what is the first archaeological material linking the life of the Buddha to a specific century has been featured amongst the top 10 world discoveries of 2014 by the Archaeological Institute of America’s Archaeology Magazine.
The find was made within the sacred Maya Devi Temple at Lumbini, Nepal, a UNESCO World Heritage site long identified as the birthplace of the Buddha.
Prof Coningham, who is currently carrying out fieldwork in Nepal, said: “I’m delighted that the project has been featured as one of Archaeology Magazine’s top 10 world discoveries. This recognition, alongside other archaeological breakthroughs in 2014, is a testament to the global significance of the historical Buddha and his teachings.
“The discovery confirms the value of the science-based methodological approach to the archaeology of early Buddhism by the international team of researchers.”
One of the four key Buddhist pilgrimage sites, as acknowledged by the Buddha himself, it was traditionally thought that the earliest archaeological evidence of Buddhist structures at
Lumbini dated no earlier than the Third Century BC, linked to the patronage of the Mauryan Emperor Asoka and associated with his pillar inscription that identified the site as the birthplace of the Buddha.
Until now, evidence for the life of the Buddha had been reconstructed from early texts, including his birth at Lumbini under a tree.
The discovery of the archaeological sequence at Lumbini now shows a building there as early as the Sixth Century BC and not only provides some of the earliest evidence for Buddhist monuments but also helps inform the debate as to when the Buddha lived and the social and economic context in which he lived.
UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova, said: “UNESCO is very proud to be associated with this important discovery at one of the most holy places for one of the world’s oldest religions. More archaeological research, intensified conservation work and strengthened site management to ensure Lumbini’s protection are crucial.”
The international team of researchers is continuing to work with UNESCO and the Government of Nepal and is now exploring one of the sites identified as ancient Kapilavastu, the childhood home of the Buddha.
Durham University also recently established the first ever UNESCO Chair in Archaeological Ethics and Practice in Cultural Heritage.
As part of this role, Prof Coningham will aim to develop debates, policies and methodologies to evaluate the economic, ethical and social impacts of cultural heritage, strengthen its protection in crisis and conflict situations, and prevent its use to exacerbate differences and tensions.
The British excavation team worked alongside monks, nuns and pilgrims at the sacred site in collaboration with conservationists and planners.
They wore only slippers or went barefoot during the excavation work – as shoes are forbidden in the sacred temple – over three winters in Nepal, when the water table is at its lowest.
Buddhist tradition records that Queen Maya Devi, the mother of the Buddha, gave birth to him while holding on to the branch of a tree within the Lumbini garden, midway between the kingdoms of her husband and parents.
Prof Coningham and his colleagues speculated that the open space in the centre of the shrine they discovered may have accommodated a tree.
He said the birth of Buddha had been placed in a wide spectrum from the early 400s BC to the Seventh or Eight Century BC by different traditions within Buddhism. The discovery made it likely that the Buddha lived in the Sixth Century BC, he said.
“It is one of the most exciting discoveries in terms of Buddhist archaeology since the early discoveries of the sites because we now have an idea of what the earliest Buddhist shrine looked like,” he said.
“The significance for us is that the shrine is built around a tree and the fact that the Buddhist birth story is connected with a tree. It is one of those really rare occasions when belief, tradition, archaeology and excavation actually come together.”
Buddhism is based largely on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha and is one of the world’s oldest religions. Many hundreds of thousands of Buddhists from around the world make the pilgrimage to Lumbini every year.
The excavation work was funded by the Japanese government in partnership with the Government of Nepal as part of a Unesco project aimed at strengthening conservation and management of the temple.